- Associated Press - Friday, October 9, 2015

DECATUR, Ill. (AP) - Seventy years ago, millions of Americans were returning home from their posts on ships, remote islands in the Pacific Ocean and occupation duty in Europe.

They had just celebrated the victory over Japan, which was sealed on the battleship USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay on Sept. 2. That marked the end of nearly four years of U.S. combat in World War II, the most costly war in history.

Almost every American served the war effort in some capacity, or had relatives, neighbors and friends who were doing so. More than 1 million service members were killed or wounded.

Looking back with pride at the accomplishments of the “greatest generation,” it is difficult to imagine the scope of grief, suffering and anxiety they underwent. In recent years, more and more veterans and homefront workers have begun telling their stories, especially so younger people would understand the price they paid for freedom and prosperity.

During the war, Connie Shaw stayed in her hometown, while she made important contributions, along with many other area women.

Shaw, who was 19 years old when America entered the war, lived in Longview Place, built in 1942 to house workers in war industries.

She went to work at the Sangamon Ordnance Plant, just west of Illiopolis, where 15,000 workers, mostly women, produced artillery shells and bomb fuses. The concrete bunkers where the shells were stored in the massive 20,000-acre complex may still be seen among the farmland just north of Interstate 72.

Shaw said that when she arrived each day at the plant, via interurban train, the women would change into uniforms, consisting of men’s trousers and underwear. In those days, women rarely wore slacks in public.

“My first job was to put powder into the noses of shells,” she recalled, adding that the substance was known as ammonium picrate. “It looked like lemon Jell-O powder.”

She was later transferred to the end of the line, where she placed fuses in the shells.

The entire operation was underground. One day, after the women changed into their work clothes, they were descending the stairs to the level at which a guard searched them. The guard discovered that a woman in front of Shaw had a cigarette and a match hidden beneath her breasts.

“Thank God she found that,” Shaw said. “That was a very deadly thing to do.”

Shaw recalled two fatalities during her tenure at the plant. A man who was trying to loosen a shell from a crimper tapped it with a hammer. Apparently he tapped too hard or in the wrong place, because he and the shell “went right up through the cement roof.”

A young woman who worked at a machine that made explosive pellets was cleaning a machine when it exploded. The work area was so dangerous that the machine was normally monitored from outside the room, through a series of mirrors.

Shaw was later hired at the Houdaille-Hershey Corp. plant on Decatur’s north side, a top-secret operation that contributed to the production of the first atomic bombs.

“I worked in the laboratory,” Shaw said. “We didn’t know what we were working on.”

She helped test metal tubes that were made in that plant. She later learned that they were used to separate different types of uranium.

“There were a lot of engineers there, from New York and Chicago,” Shaw recalled.

Her brothers, Stanley and Carroll, served in uniform during the war.

Shaw said she had ambivalent feelings about working in war industries because a lot of people died as a result of the conflict.

“Then I reasoned that more people would have died if I hadn’t done it,” Shaw said.

Supporting Patton’s Army

Bob Corey left Decatur High School during his senior year to enlist in the Army in March 1943, when he was 18.

“I’d have been deferred until June,” Corey said. “I couldn’t wait to go.”

He was offered a choice of military branches, but rejected the Navy, despite a recruiter’s word that he would always be within five miles of land. He understood that included the bottom of the ocean.

After testing, he landed a spot in the Army Air Corps, and was trained at the Republic Aviation factory on Long Island to work on P-47 Thunderbolt fighter-bombers.

Corey was assigned to the Ninth Air Force, 373rd Fighter Group, 411th Squadron, which supported Gen. George Patton’s Third Army as it advanced through Europe toward Germany.

“We backed up Patton,” Corey said. “Every time he moved, we moved with him.”

Corey and his fellow crew members landed at Normandy in early July 1944, about one month after the D-Day invasion. They worked long hours in every kind of weather, repairing damaged aircraft as well as performing inspections. Corey served in England, France, Belgium, Holland and Germany.

After the Germans surrendered in May 1945, Corey and most of the Army airmen returned to the States for leave before heading to the Pacific for the expected invasion of Japan.

While he was in Decatur, he heard the news that the war ended.

“A lot of people went to the Transfer House to celebrate,” he said. But Corey just went on his way to visit a girl he knew and celebrate quietly. “I had seen enough.”

Corey later served in the Army National Guard for nine years and the Army Reserve for 30 years, retiring as a lieutenant colonel in 1984. He also served 21 years with the Decatur Fire Department and 12 years with the state’s arson unit.

On May 19, 1946, he married Norma Jean Dawley, whom he met while working at the Rogers Theater before the war. They are both in good health, residing on the city’s east side, near Eisenhower High School.

Front row seat

Chapin “Art” Watts had two brothers in the Navy, so when he turned 17, he figured it was time to drop out of school to do his part.

Watts served 2½ years as a gunner’s mate aboard the USS Taylor, which participated in many battles in the Pacific and was among the ships to escort the USS Missouri into Tokyo Bay for the surrender ceremony.

Adm. William Halsey, commander of the Third Fleet, selected the USS Taylor and two sister destroyers to form the escort “because of their valorous fight up the long road from the South Pacific to the very end.”

Watts had a close call with a Japanese kamikaze (suicide) pilot while off the coast of Okinawa, which aimed for his ship, but was shot down.

“We shot down a lot of planes,” said Watts, 90, a resident of Evergreen Supportive Living, who could rattle off the names and locations of the numerous armaments that his ship deployed. “Our ship was loaded with more power than any other ship I saw.”

The destroyer’s crew was called upon to bombard islands occupied by Japanese troops, sink enemy ships and submarines and escort battleships and aircraft carriers.

A shell that was aimed at the Taylor from an enemy shore gun almost hit its target, landing instead in its wake.

“They had our range, but they didn’t figure to lead the ship,” Watts said. “They didn’t know how fast we were going - almost 20 mph.”

During his tour, none of the five ships in his squadron were lost.

“We got strafed, but nobody was hurt,” Watts said. “It ain’t luck; it’s just fate. We got them before they got us.”

After the Japanese emperor announced the nation’s surrender, but before the official signing of the peace documents, the USS Taylor escorted the USS Missouri into Tokyo Bay. Watts’ ship docked in Yokohama, while the USS Missouri dropped anchor out in the bay.

“I went ashore,” Watts said. “I went onto the dock and walked around. The people weren’t hostile at all. They were lied to. They wanted it to be over.”

During the signing ceremony, USS Taylor was tied up alongside USS Missouri, Watts said. He saw sailors on top of the guns of the battleship, while he remained at his battle station with 40mm anti-aircraft guns.

“After the signing, the guys on top of the guns were applauding,” Watts said. “During the signing, it was real quiet. After the signing, it was all over.”


Source: (Decatur) Herald & Review, https://bit.ly/1LsfRjK


Information from: Herald & Review, https://www.herald-review.com

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